By Jason Zhang, VI Form
An Examination of the Ethics of Examining with Hitchcock and Foucault
Surveillance requires two groups: those who are watching and those who are being watched, which brings up the morality of surveillance. Is it appropriate for someone to observe another person intentionally? Does a person’s behavior change if they know that they are being watched? How is a person affected when their privacy is stripped away from them? Both the film Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock and the essay “To Discipline and Punish” by Michel Foucault attempt to answer these questions. In Rear Window, Jeff is a brave man who has a history of racing sports cars and being in the military. Unfortunately, his adventurous life comes to a halt when he injures his leg. Jeff is forced to remain in his small, New York City apartment for weeks. Besides the occasional visit from his caretaker and his girlfriend, Jeff’s life is unbearably uneventful until he begins to watch his neighbors from the rear window. Likewise, Foucault’s essay “To Discipline and Punish” tries to understand the consequences of surveillance, but from the perspective of a prison’s architectural design. The prison cells of a Panopticon are arranged so that they all surround one viewing tower placed at the center of the circular building. Therefore, a person inside the viewing tower can see every cell and every person in a cell can see the person inside the viewing tower. Although it is never explicitly said whether or not surveillance is good or bad, both Rear Window and “To Discipline and Punish” come to the conclusion that surveillance is a powerful action.
Rear Window begins with the camera slowly exiting Jeff’s room and panning across the apartment buildings around him, allowing the viewer to see the set for the first time. The entire movie is filmed within this space which reflects the fact that Jeff is physically impaired. Since the concept of surveillance is examined within both Rear Window and Foucault’s essay, it is no accident that the arrangement of the apartment buildings in Rear Window resembles the Panopticon. Jeff is able to see into the windows of his neighbors, as if they are all in their own, unique worlds, and they are able to see into his. The same phenomenon is found in Foucault’s essay as he writes, “They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible” (Foucault 5). In Rear Window, Jeff becomes obsessed with one actor: Lars Thorwald. He is intrigued by Thorwald when he sees him making multiple journeys in the middle of the night while carrying a mysterious suitcase. The following morning, Thorwald’s wife is nowhere to be found. Only Lars Thorwald can be seen in his apartment, and he is cleaning a large knife and handsaw! Naturally, Jeff becomes very suspicious of his neighbor. Did he just witness the murder of Mrs. Thorwald? At this moment, Jeff’s actions transition from a casual looking at what’s going on outside to a relentless investigation of Lars Thorwald. He introduces binoculars and a camera so that he can analyze Thorwald as if he is a specimen being placed under the microscope. This whole time, Thorwald is completely unaware that his every move is being recorded.
Privacy is fundamental to human life. In Rear Window, Lisa Fremont, Jeff’s girlfriend, expresses that everyone does things they do not wish other people to see. As humans, we normally do not go about our day worrying about whether or not other people are watching us. Instead, we simply assume that we are out of sight when we spend time in private settings such as an apartment. Unfortunately, Lars Thorwald did not have this privilege. He was being watched only while he was in his apartment, and he didn’t find out until it was too late. When you are aware that someone else is watching you, your behavior changes. Foucault agrees with this claim as he writes, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power” (Foucault 7). Which begs the question, would Lars Thorwald have committed murder if he knew that Jeff was watching him the whole time? During the Cold War, everyone was paranoid. People feared that communists were among them, that spies were relaying confidential information back to the East, and that war could break out at any moment. As a result, our government pushed for greater surveillance efforts. Similar to the Panopticon, the intent was “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 6). If people knew that it was at least possible for them to be watched at all times, they would respect the law at all times. Thus, surveillance is directly connected to safety. At the end of Rear Window, Jeff successfully imprisons Lars Thorwald. But at what cost?
Surveillance is neither good nor bad. It depends on the purpose. For the Panopticon, surveillance makes perfect sense. Foucault writes that “Visibility is a trap” (Foucault 5) and the main function of a prison is to trap those who have committed crimes. However, visibility can also be used as a weapon. Although it cannot cause physical harm, visibility harms one’s ability to live candidly. It cannot be denied that Lars Thorwald murdered his wife and deserves to be punished accordingly. Yet, for some reason, the viewer can’t help but feel sympathetic towards him. Jeff infringed upon his privacy, just like the government infringes upon ours today.
Jason Zhang is a VI Form day student from Westborough, MA. He loves spending time with family, plays tennis, and enjoys watching Chinese movies.
Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Chapter 3. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, foucault.info/documents/foucault.disciplineAndPunish.panOpticism/.
Rear Window. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Paramount Pictures, 1954.